15 Things I Learnt in Exchange

Photo Brock Davis

All my seniors were encouraging me to apply for exchange but I didn’t see the point in doing so. “My grades will not make the mark, I do not have enough money, I will be homesick, I might not be able to complete my required credits,  it is going to be freaking troublesome blah blah blah…” were the things going through my mind.  Eventually I decided that I will just give a shot with my borderline grades and let fate decide… And I got it! I was scared and excited. After a long journey and now back to Singapore, here is a list of my learnings throughout the programme.

1. Everything in Universities is well-planned: Take the course recommended by my school & seniors, stick around with my roommate to avoid lonely dinner, join CCAs with JC friends… In exchange, you need to figure out which country to go to, what course to match, what document you need to submit, how to plan your flights & trips, how to budget carefully, how to make friends. Almost everything ON MY OWN! But soon, I realise: this is LIFE isnt it? Filled with uncertainties and unknowns. But its fun. Exchange is part of learning how to embrace life.

2. I arrived in Germany Frankfurt at 3am. (Dont ask me why its 3am, I bought the cheapest ticket) The temperature was 5 degrees at that time! Luckily, my home-stay landlord Sisa is nice enough to pick me up. That was her first time taking an exchange student from Singapore, and she doesn’t even know where is Singapore…(They thought Singapore is part of China, since I am a Chinese…What the…) At that point, I have this amazing realization that I have just flown across half the world to Europe, to a place where no one knows me.

3. There was a Korean in our exchange orientation group. He asked if i’m a Chinese and I said yes. He is puzzled as to why i’m a Singaporean and a Chinese at the same time. I ask if he is a Chinese and he said No. But he looks really ‘Chinese’. Later I found out that Korean is both a nationality and a race. And there are many other things about the world that I do not know, until I step out of Singapore.

4. On the second day in Darmstadt, I went for clubbing with the eldest sister & brother. With a group of nameless guys and gals, we went to the most happening club in the city! (You might think I was crazy! Yes I was.) You know what, they gave me some white powder to inhale. I never asked what that was but I could guess it. Haha! Luckily, I came back in one piece. I learn that in life, it is fine to try certain things, maybe just once.

5. There was a time I had a chance to talk to Buggy, Sisa’s husband. I “reported” to him that the children are misusing drug! (I know I am kind of evil…) He laughed and said he did that when he was young as well. He said they are already 20 and have grown up. We should let them have the choice. He taught me what it meant by culture – the way your mum taught you and you going to teach your kid.

6. When I arrived, Matthew was so excited to show me around the city he grew up in. He even introduced me to all his friends. It was so warm it made me feel at home in a foreign country. Oh! I got to know Matthew when he came for exchange to Singapore. At that time, he looked lost and I gave him a very brief orientation of NTU. When I befriended Matthew 2 years ago, i have no idea I would eventually live in his country for 6 months. I learn that you should really be nice to everyone, you never know how and when you will meet them again.

be nice

7. I got to know a guy in one of those house parties. As a standard ice-breaker, he inquired what course i’m reading. I said “Business” and asked the same. To my amazement, he answered “Evil”, with a smirk on his face. LOL. A check with other people confirmed that this course exists. Yes, all kinds of courses are available in the west. It is a place where I found people studying in universities not to gain employment but to pursue interests. I wonder if we can ever be as carefree as them.

8. In Singapore, it used to be many Singaporeans and a few FTs. In Germany, the table is turned. Now, its a few Singaporeans and many FTs(angmohs). Wait a minute, i’m the FT now to them. Sure, a few of them were nasty but most of them treated me normally. I even made a few BFFs! I realize that there is no point drawing boundaries because of the difference in accent and background. At the end of the day, we are all human beings.

9. I had my Chinese New Year in Germany. No Angpow, Bagua and fireworks. I skyped with my family members and relatives, while being teased and laughed by them (as I cried over missing them…) This is really homesicking. (P.S: Dont skype with your family during Chines New Year, you will miss home badly)

10. I met a local Chinese. Cool! Thinking that I’m a monolingual Chinese, she tried talking to me in mandarin but she obviously can’t speak it. I talked to her in English but she couldn’t understand me. I thought : “nice! Now Im getting discriminated by a fellow Asian….” I grew very conscious of my accent. Later I found out that it is not because my English sucks, but because she is deaf in one ear. I realize I was being too self-conscious.

11. I went into a fast food restaurant known as In-and-Out Burger which was totally new to me. I decided to take a moment to look at the menu before joining the queue. When I was done with browsing and proceeded to the tail end, the Angmoh lady infront of me asked me to go infront of her. She said I stepped into the restaurant before her. I declined politely but she insisted that I go first. Wow. It made my day. I learnt that a random act of kindness can be a great source of joy, to both parties.

make someone's day12. Finding yourself is a cliché, but i did, in Germany. No more mum’s unceasing naggings ( sorry mum, you know I love you), NTU’s impossible deadlines and CCA’s midnight calls. I have plenty of time for reflection, a luxury in fast-paced Singapore. I found out that I haven’t been thinking for the past 3 years in school. Now that I am near graduation, I still have no idea what I want to do. I decided that….. I will stay in Germany longer for more thinking!

13. As soon as I arrived in US and step out of the airplane, everything around me is so freaking cool, from the novel architecture of the buildings, to something as mundane as the dustbin. I had no doubt that I have entered paradise. Few weeks later, the dustbin started to look like just a dustbin. Few months later, the dustbin started to stink. I miss Singapore’s dustbin. I found out that even heaven feels like earth after a while.

14. When I went for backpacking in the region, I met an uncle in the hostel who was also backpacking. After finding out I am a student, his face suddenly turned sombre. He said “I regretted not going for exchange while I was in school. Travelling now is different. You don’t get to live like locals. Dont have regrets like I did.” His words stuck with me till today- ‘Dont have regrets like I did’. Lessons on the road by wise people are most precious.

15. I came back to Singapore and see flocks of Angmohs taking pictures of Merlion and thought to myself, “whats so special about Merlion…..?” Then I remembered the revolted look on the faces of locals when I took pictures of the statue of Liberty in US. A quote flashed across my mind : Travelling is basically going to where others are sick of. It is all about perception. I learn to look at Singapore through the eyes of a tourist and appreciate its beauty once more.

different perspectives

Sure, you go through a lot of hassles in order to go for exchange, but at the end of the day, we all agree that its worth it J When else would you get to live with the locals for a good few months? If university is the best phase of life, exchange is the best phase of university life! You have fun and learn about things you never learn in the books. Enjoy!

This post is a compilation of exchange stories from a few “digital seniors” who went for exchange in the west.  Do you have any interesting thoughts or experiences on exchange ? Share with us in the comment box below !


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